So Hot Right Now

The Term Small Batch is Everywhere, But What Does it Really Mean?

August  9, 2016

Naturally-leavened, single origin, micro… Reading labels, menus, and tap-room chalkboards has become complicated. Where we once had the familiar “sweet” corn or “vine-ripened” tomatoes, we now see “Orleans Process” vinegar and “bean-to-bar” chocolate, which occupy a very different realm: the one of “artisanal” foods and drinks.

It’s a tricky category: Because these words send such strong signals about tradition, they're also vulnerable to misuse.

What does “artisanal” itself even mean? Does it signal craft or marketing smarts, heritage of hype? At its worst it can seem nothing more than folksy packaging (letterpress font required) on industrially-produced foods. At its best though, the movement is uplifting, reminding us there’s a role for the skilled—well, artisan—hand in the creation of flavor. Still, remarkably few of the words have precise definitions, and it's ultimately left up to each one of us to judge the sincerity behind the product.

The flavors are direct and true. Sometimes deciphering the label is the only complicated part.

Those words and phrases that do have established definitions are dictated by groups that want to maintain delineated meaning in a realm where the lyrical impulse can sometimes take over. The Boulder-based Brewers Association has established six million barrels as the cut-off production level after which one is no longer a “craft” brewer. Likewise, the American Cheese Society requires cheese that is labeled “farmstead” to use only milk from the farm where the cheese is made.

After that it’s more about suggesting than defining, which means that, especially for terms that seem overused, it’s the vividness of a flavor—rather than any sort of language—that establishes the meaning more powerfully. With no legal clarity, you’ll have to try the product and judge for yourself. "Small batch" is a good example. Where haven’t we seen it? We sometimes might wonder how something supposedly made in small amounts can manage to be on the weekly flyer of our local supermarket chain.

But, invariably for me, just when I’m ready to cast “small batch” off as a buzzword, I’m reminded of what it actually denotes. That’s what happened when I tasted the garlicky snap of the pickles fermented in wood barrels sold by Britt’s Pickles in Seattle’s Pike Place Market recently. And, come to think of it, when I had small batch bitters by barkeep Christiaan Rollich at Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles; I detected a hint of cassia bark that opened up the warm bourbon notes in a Manhattan and made me rediscover a classic cocktail.

Much of the movement’s power lies in that sense of rediscovery. The history of American eating (and drinking) is full of vivid flavors, but by the 1960s many of those characteristics—and the local customs behind them—had been reduced to blandness by an industrialized form of production that was always ready to sacrifice quality for large-scale production. That’s when food artisans started to appear. Instructed by a network that communicated with self-addressed stamped envelopes and armed with basic equipment for baking, brewing, and cheesemaking, they sought to find—in the traditions of the past—a way to eat better in the present.

They sought to find—in the traditions of the past—a way to eat better in the present.

There’s still a legacy of those days—when newbie artisans defined themselves against the nasty ways of big food—in the focus on scale of production. It can sometimes seem too much. Those for whom the “micro” brewery isn’t tiny enough can fill their growlers at a “nano” brewery. We get it: They’re not the brewery with the Clydesdales. While “nano” has no artisanal-related definition (an internet search would seem to put “a business model easy to parody” in the running), all the word play is a wish to single out a venture where the craft level is high or, in the case of coffee or chocolate, the raw material unique.

“Single origin” coffee, for example, does originate on a mountain farm where the crop is recognized for qualities such as robustness, pleasing acidity, or even a natural sweetness that the best coffee beans retain after being roasted and brewed. “Single barrel” bourbon means that the whiskey tasted in the rickhouse (where barrels are stacked as they mature) was deemed unique enough to not blend with others. “Bean-to-bar” chocolate makers are safeguarding the individuality of their raw material when they roast cacao beans they take directly from burlap bags, then winnow the chaff, mill the nibs, and fashion and temper the chocolate. The finishing sprinkle of sea salt on each bar of Brooklyn’s Cacao Prieto, wrapped in heavy bond paper with a cool design, underscores the original high quality of the beans.

What industrialized food did was prioritize speed. What artisans are doing is putting flavor first.

There’s something about all those steps that represents the patient craft behind the variety of foods and drinks that are being rediscovered by the artisanal movement. What industrialized food did was prioritize speed. What artisans are doing is putting flavor first. That may be the minutes it takes to fix a customer a “pour over” coffee, the boiling water slowly dripping through the coffee sleeve on the counter before you, or the twenty-four hours “naturally-leavened” bread, one whose initial rise is boosted by a portion of yesterday’s dough, takes to get from mixing bowl to oven. It requires many months of aging Wisconsin’s best Swiss-style cheeses (and continuously turning the wheels and brushing each one with salt) for the all-important microbially-complex rind to develop.

Great vinegars, like those developed using the “Orleans Process,” can involve up to two years. The oak barrels they get from wineries are stacked, each one about two-thirds full of good wine and a microbial “mother” that will slowly transform the alcohol into a liquid that’s both wonderfully mellow and boldly sharp. The technique was first developed in Orleans, the French city on the banks of the Loire, but the quality of the vinegar has made it become more and more popular here. It’s not a fancy ingredient at all, but one you can use any day to elevate a marinade, create a powerful base for a sauce when deglazing a hot pan, or splash on a salad in a dressing that reveals all the herbal subtleties of your fresh green mix. Like great bacon, crusty bread or a unique coffee in a diner mug, its low-key way represents what’s most powerful about the artisanal movement.

The flavors are direct and true. Sometimes deciphering the label is the only complicated part.

Do you have an "artisan" food product you really love? Tell us about in the comments below!

6 Comments

Stephanie August 11, 2017
Here is an example of what "Artisanal" should truly be. I make small batch vinegars, Apple Cider Vin, Blueberry, Pear, Mango, etc. Each batch is between 7-25 gallons, using the Orleans method (or open fermentation). I use local no-spray fruit in season, and store bought organic out of season. Each batch ages a minimum of 3 months, currently some up to a year. The link provided is to my ACV aged 9 months in American Oak, that just won a silver medal at the Central Coast Vinegar Competition in CA. Smooth, robust, with hints of vanilla and caramel. Nothing like you've ever tasted before. <br />https://www.locallygoodfarm.com/product-page/apple-cider-vinegar-aged-in-oak-16-oz
 
Erica August 12, 2016
I really enjoyed this :) Thank you for this clarification on labeling. Sometimes it's really confusing and I'm like "What's that exactly??".. :)<br />I do agree with the previous comments about the headline, but the quality of the post compensates for it. <br />http://www.leathersofa-cleaning.co.uk/
 
M August 9, 2016
I really enjoy this site, and it's one of my few everyday reads, but there needs to be better headline clarity.<br /><br />This piece is about parsing meaning in artisanal terminology, but the headline says it's an explanation of what the specific term "small batch" really means.<br /><br />Often as a reader on this site, I am immediately at odds with the writer's intent, through no fault of their own. I expect a discussion of the topic in the headline, and wonder why the focus is all over the place (or really off the map), until I realize that it's not the writer that is off-topic, but the headline itself. <br /><br />I understand the demand to create engaging heds, but that engagement is immediately hurt when the headline doesn't match the piece.<br /><br />As for the piece -- it's really interesting. There seems to be a sort of unintentional irony at play between the creation of terminology to clearly express craft, and the eventual sea of terminology that confuses the expression of craft.
 
Sarah J. August 9, 2016
Thanks for the thoughtful feedback, M, and for visiting the site regularly!! On further thought, the headline should have probably been "Terms Like Small Batch are Everywhere, But What Do They Really Mean?" and that was my mistake. The teaser to the piece is "How to navigate the often-confusing world of "artisan" food"—which I thought explained the article's breadth when read with the headline—but I definitely understand how the headline, taken totally alone, would be misleading. I'll keep this in mind in the future!
 
M August 10, 2016
Thanks for the response, Sarah! <br /><br />Is the teaser supposed to show up on the article page? It doesn't for me -- not on the page here, nor the rss blurb that I click on. To see the teaser you're referring to, I had to click on the overall site, then features, then "view all." Otherwise, it's just image and hed.
 
Sarah J. August 10, 2016
Yes, it's a bit hidden—it shows up when the article gets featured as the main image on the homepage and under the "Features" tab; but its obscurity is something we'll definitely keep in mind when writing headnotes in the future.